Thursday, May 29, 2008

Affirmative Action and its Discontents, Around the World

On opposite sides of the world, two stories of the perils of ethnic politics. The BBC tells of protests by the Gujjars in India:

Thousands of protesters from India's Gujjar tribe have burnt tyres and blocked key roads into Delhi in support of their demand for better treatment.
Tens of thousands of paramilitary troops and policemen have been deployed to maintain order.

Over the past week, at least 41 people have died in clashes between police and Gujjars in Rajasthan, western India.

Only below does the BBC clarify what is meant by the who-could-be-against-that? phrase “better treatment”:

The Gujjars say they want to be placed on an official list of disadvantaged tribal groups that benefit from preferential recruitment to government jobs and educational institutions.

The Indian affirmative-action system is much vaster than that in the U.S. Soon after independence the central government created a list of Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes, groups that because of isolation in the former case and Hindu traditions in the latter were judged to be systematically disadvantaged. Almost as soon as "reservations" (as affirmative action is known there) began efforts began to make the list of eligible groups bigger, and to expand the prizes available. While the SC and ST lists are fixed in stone, this restraint has been evaded in at least two ways. First, not wasting a moment on political correctness, the government created a category called “Other Backward Classes,” which it can expand (in exchange for political support) at any time. Second, whenever a state splits into multiple states (as has happened several times), the new governments get to draw up lists all over again. Recently, (highly controversial) efforts have been made to extend the reservation system to India’s prestigious technological institutes, the MITs of the subcontinent.

Meanwhile, in America, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education, universities are now working extremely hard to make sure their students get put into the right boxes:

Colleges should continue to collect detailed data on their students' racial and ethnic identities, notwithstanding new federal guidelines that will categorize many students simply as "two or more races," two scholars urged on Wednesday at the annual conference of the Association for Institutional Research.

Among other things, Hispanics/Latinos are being urged to classify themselves racially as well as by the artificial status of Hispanic/Latino or not, so that (for example) "black" "Hispanics" get counted as black too. Mixed-race students are being put into the proper piles – half-“Asian,” half-“white” students, for example, are to be counted as Asian, but those of mixed white/aboriginal status are not being counted as American Indian, because such status is apparently being used opportunistically by people who are really “white” to take resources from the true Amerinds.

Thus, the classic dynamics of ethnic (or religious) preferences, and the subsidy of group identity generally, in politics. Every group diverts resources to claiming a share of the pie, in part by investing in their own group’s particular identity capital. This investment presumably comes at the expense of allowing individuals to define their own identities, or to define themselves first as Americans and only secondarily by the ethnic adjectives preceding “American.” Additionally, people try to increase the number of ways in which ethnic-capital should be rewarded – from mere seeking out of minority suppliers in government contracting (the original LBJ vision of affirmative action) to higher-education representation to higher-education academic departments to sufficient employment "diversity" to, perhaps one day, explicit representation in legislatures.

The Chronicle also reports that “in a paper that they distributed at Wednesday's session, Mr. [C. Anthony] Broh and Mr. [Stephen D.] Minicucci write that the two-question format ‘amounts to a visual statement that groups are not treated equally in higher-education policy.’”

It evidently never occurs to Mr. Broh or Mr. Minicucci that in America groups are not supposed to be treated equally. Individuals are.



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